The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet — David Mitchell

At some point, almost every character in David Mitchell’s new novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet tells a story. The book teems with storytellers and their stories, overflows with compact bildungsromans, wistful jeremiads, high adventures drawn in miniature, comic escapades, bizarre folk tales, and romantic myths, all pressed into the service of the book’s larger narrative, the story of Jacob de Zoet, a Dutchman in Shogunate era Japan. In 1799, the relative starting point for this massive novel, Japan limited economic trade with Europeans to the Dutch East India Company, who, with a few rare exceptions, were not permitted to touch Japanese soil. Instead, the Dutch were confined to the man-made isle of Dejima in the bay of Nagasaki. With its rich cultural mishmash, claustrophobic isolation, and strange hybrid nature, Dejima makes a fascinating platform for Mitchell’s tale.

Most reviews of Mitchell’s new book have squared it against his earlier novels, particularly his experimental opus Cloud Atlas (The Guardian‘s review even begins by asking “Does it matter what books a novelist has written before? Should readers need to know an author’s preceding works fully to grasp the new one?”). The reason for this is plain. By and large, Thousand Autumns is a conventional historical novel, a straightforward linear narrative that combines a forbidden love triangle story with elements of high adventure. There are good guys and bad guys, Enlightened thinkers and scheming crooks, warriors and spies, and even an evil monk who may or may not have supernatural powers. Thousand Autumns (like its main setting Dejima) is richly detailed but hermetically sealed; what leaks from that seal are its myriad stories, its capacity for storytelling. This effusion of stories also marks the novel, I believe, as something more than the conventional historical novel it is purported to be. Even more interesting though is the space the novel is occupying in a current literary debate–is The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet a postmodern novel or not? The rest of my review will discuss this issue, along with James Wood’s review at The New Yorker and Dave Eggers’s review at The New York Times. The simple answer, of course, is that it doesn’t matter whether the book is postmodern or something else–it’s a very good book, I enjoyed it very much, and you probably will too. I encourage you to read Wood’s precis, which I’ve excised here, and then pick up the book. Anyone else interested in the foolish minutiae of what may or may not make a book postmodern or post-postmodern or something else may wish to continue (or not).

Here’s James Wood, using Mitchell’s oeuvre to dither over the fact that “The serious literary novel is at an interesting moment of transition” –

If postmodernism came after modernism, what comes after postmodernism? For that is where we are. “Post-postmodernism” tends toward an infinite stutter. “After postmodernism” suggests a severance that has not occurred. We might settle for “late postmodernism,” a term that suggests the peculiar statelessness of contemporary fiction, which finds itself wandering—not unhappily—between tradition and novelty, realism and anti-realism, the mass audience and the élitist critic. Thus David Mitchell can follow a “postmodern” novel with a “traditional” comic bildungsroman, and then follow that with a conventional historical novel. It is hard to know whether this statelessness is difficult freedom or easy imprisonment, but the more ambitious contemporary fiction will often blend a bewildering variety of elements and historical techniques [. . .]

Dave Eggers, however, feels no need to look for machinations beyond straightforward storytelling. He claims that Thousand Autumns retains the

[. . .] narrative tendencies [of Mitchell's earlier works] while abandoning the structural complexities often (and often wrongly) called postmodern. This new book is a straight-up, linear, third-person historical novel, an achingly romantic story of forbidden love and something of a rescue tale — all taking place off the coast of Japan, circa 1799. Postmodern it’s not.”

There’s a certain reticence in Eggers’s review to situate Thousand Autumns against anything but itself, including even the rest of Mitchell’s works. In contrast, Wood spends the first half of his review positioning Mitchell’s postmodernism, throughout both his novels (against each other), and as the oeuvre of one author (against other authors). For Wood, Thousand Autumns, because of “its self-enclosed quality [. . .] represents an assertion of pure fictionality.” He continues, arguing that “although the book contains no literary games, it is itself a kind of long game.” Wood would like to see in Thousand Autumns‘s discrete self-containedness a kind of literary gesture, perhaps a sort of conventional historical novel (in scare quotes) that is so conventional as to efface all signs of self-awareness (and thus erase the scare quotes around the gesture). At the same time, Wood recognizes the power of storytelling in the book, asserting that this feature is what makes it a “representative late-postmodern document.” Wood continues:

In place of the grave silence that was the great theme of early postmodernism (or late modernism, if you prefer), language announcing a postwar exhaustion, its own impossibility, as in the work of Beckett or Blanchot, there is a confident profusion of narratives, an often comic abundance of story-making. Never, when reading Mitchell, does the reader worry that language may not be adequate to the task, and this seems to me both a fabulous fortune and a metaphysical deficiency.

These last sentiments are where I strongly disagree with Wood (as perhaps my lede attests)–the greatest strength of Mitchell’s work here is the fabulous fortune of its abundant storytelling. Far from being a metaphysical deficiency, the characters in Thousand Autumns, major and minor, repeatedly transcend their social, spiritual, economic, psychological, and physical confinement via storytelling. Again and again language breaks characters away from their isolation or imprisonment, gives them access to adventure and romance–to spirit. Ultimately, Wood condemns the book for this “metaphysical deficiency,” arguing that “the reader wants a kind of moral or metaphysical pressure that is absent, and that has ceded all the ground to pure storytelling.” (In Wood’s critical body, it is always “the reader,” never “this reader”). I think that the pleasure and power of pure storytelling is its own end, and perhaps it is this recognition that leads Eggers to pronounce of the book simply that “Postmodern it’s not.” And while this declaration is ultimately a more reader-friendly take on Thousand Autumns, it’s also clear to see how the experimental nature of Mitchell’s previous work calls for Wood’s need to place the novel, to situate it against a developing canon (even if Wood chooses ultimately to deny its status).

Wood is perhaps right in his assertion that the term “post-postmodernism” leads to an “infinite stutter.” Still, post-postmodernism ultimately seems more fitting to describe Thousand Autumns than Wood’s “late postmodernism.” The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet cunningly sets the spiky traps of language and then gracefully leaps over them. Like David Foster Wallace and William Vollmann–two writers who I believe mark the beginnings of post-postmodernism–Mitchell wants to transcend postmodernism’s ironic vision, and storytelling–giving his characters voices–is a means to this end. Perhaps it is Mitchell’s earnestness in conveying the power of storytelling leads Wood to conclude Thousand Autumns “a kind of fantasy [. . .] Or, rather, it is a brilliant fairy tale; and even nightingales, as a Russian proverb has it, can’t live off fairy tales.” If, finally, Thousand Autumns is not a late postmodernist historical fiction but indeed a fairy tale, then it’s worth noting that it’s a particularly enjoyable and nourishing one. Highly recommended.

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7 comments

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  4. P.T. Smith · July 19, 2010

    This is a wonderful read of “Thousand Autumns,” thanks for it. What I’d want to add is how many of the stories told require translation at some point, whether the story has already been translated before the first time it is told to us, whether we witness the translation, or whether it comes to us as translated, i.e. being told in Japanese within the text, but English for us. I think this adds a layer of complexity to the storytelling in a wonderful way.

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